The World's Most Dangerous Place Islamist Groups Form Unholy Alliance in Pakistan

The United States is paying increasing attention to Pakistan in its bid to bring stability to Afghanistan, amid fears that the nuclear state could collapse. Rival Islamic militant groups are joining forces to make their country into a stronghold -- and are receiving support from Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency.

By and Britta Sandberg

Last Thursday, at 7 a.m., Baitullah Mehsud dialed the telephone number of Alamgir Bhittani, a radio correspondent in the Tank region of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. The voice of "Bait," as the Pashtuns call the feared leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was soft and flattering.

He had called the journalist to boast about his exploits, telling him that his fighters were the ones who had created a bloodbath the previous day at a police academy near the northeastern Pakistani city of Lahore. He told Bhittani that he had ordered his men to "eliminate" as many supporters of what he called the traitorous Pakistani regime as possible.

Wearing stolen uniforms, the group of 10 terrorists had gained access to the training camp to kill recruits. The attackers took hostages and hid in one of the buildings. Helicopters and elite army and police units appeared on the scene. In the end, three of the terrorists blew themselves up, and the rest were arrested. When the bloodbath was over, eight police recruits were lying dead in the barrack's yard.

The attack, Mehsud said, was in retaliation for President Asif Ali Zardari allowing the Americans to pursue him and his allies in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. "I am not afraid of death," Mehsud boasted, before adding a threat. Soon, he said, the Americans would also be made to suffer. "We will take the battle to Washington with an attack that will astound the whole world."

Although Mehsud has started to claim responsibility for almost any kind of attack -- even ones in which he and his followers are definitely not involved -- Washington takes the new threat seriously. Since his election in November, US President Barack Obama has been urging his allies to stop treating the drama of the Afghanistan war as an isolated problem but, rather, as a regional conflict that also has to be conducted in Pakistan.

When Obama explained his plans for an intensified Afghanistan campaign at the NATO summit in Strasbourg and the southwestern German city of Baden-Baden last weekend, there was almost as much mention of Pakistan as neighboring Afghanistan. The president has also redefined the goals of the war. His aim is no longer to bring democracy to poverty-stricken Afghanistan, but to hunt down and defeat al-Qaida and those Taliban who have joined forces with them, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama wants stability in the region.

The new strategy has even yielded a new abbreviation in military jargon: AfPak. And its goal is to save AfPak, which is in danger.

Iraq veteran David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, hopes to interrupt what he calls a "downward spiral" in the war by increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 68,000 and, later, to 78,000. In addition to their current operations along Afghanistan's eastern frontier with Pakistan, US troops will also assume responsibility for fighting the Taliban in the southern part of the country next year. When that happens, combat operations along almost the entire border with Pakistan will be under US military command.

Instead of an "Afghanization" of the conflict through the training of Afghan soldiers and police, the new strategy will result in an Americanization of the war.

The Americans are also redefining the war as a struggle against three enemies who, from their bases in Pakistan, threaten Afghanistan, their own country and the entire Western world. The first are the Afghan Taliban fighters, led by Mullah Omar, who have left Afghanistan for their new stronghold in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Their allies are the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan under the command of the notorious Baitullah Mehsud, even though there are many rivalries and internal disputes about fundamental issues, such as whether the Pakistani government should be attacked and possibly toppled or not. Finally, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, which continues to operate in Pakistan, provides ideological and material support for both groups. Bin Laden and the hard core of his network are also believed to be based in the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they have apparently been operating for some time.

Obama has described the regions on both sides of the border as the "world's most dangerous place." Obama is not only concerned about the possibility of the West suffering a defeat in Afghanistan, but also about the potential collapse of Pakistan, a nuclear power. The effect on the power structure in this part of the world and the consequences for the West would be incalculable.

Map: Afghanistan and Pakistan

Map: Afghanistan and Pakistan

David Kilcullen, the chief adviser to General Petraeus, recently told the Washington Post that "within the next six months a collapse of the Pakistani government is a potential possibility, a danger which could go far beyond anything we have seen since 9/11." The US government now plans to spend up to $500 million (€380 million) a year to better equip and train the Pakistani military as part of an "emergency war budget."

The fighting has already spread to both sides of the border. For more than six months, the Americans have started to extensively strike the Islamist militants in their hideouts on Pakistani territory with precision guided missiles, a campaign that began under the Bush administration and that Obama is now continuing, only with greater force.

US military commanders no longer ask the government in Islamabad to sanction the air strikes, which are conducted with unmanned Predator drones. According to a Pakistani intelligence report from February, there have already been 80 such attacks this year alone, claiming 375 lives, including those of both civilians and militants.

In January, Usama al-Kini, the head of al-Qaida in Pakistan, was one of about a dozen senior al-Qaida leaders killed in the attacks so far. Al-Kini, who was on the FBI's "most wanted" list, is believed to have been responsible for the first major al-Qaida attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998. The Americans celebrated his death as an important blow against the terrorist network in Pakistan.

CIA Director Leon Panetta praises the drones as the "most effective weapon" in the struggle against militant groups in Pakistan. Last week, the Americans attacked one of Mehsud's camps in northwestern Pakistan, killing 12 militants.

Mehsud, 35, is seen as the prototype of the ruthlessly ambitious new generation of Taliban fighters. During the US invasion in November 2001, he was in command of only a small group of fighters. Later on, he helped hide fleeing al-Qaida leaders in the mountain villages of South Waziristan. The "Arabs," the derisive term the local population uses for foreign militants, showed their appreciation by providing Mehsud with financial support and training for his fighters.

Mehsud was once a physical education teacher at a Koran school. He is relatively uneducated and carries no religious title. Nevertheless, he has installed, and is systematically expanding, a reign of terror in the tribal regions. Traitors are labeled "spies" and "enemies of Islam" and are publicly beheaded. When the family members of one such "traitor" were carrying the body of their relative to his grave, a suicide bomber blew up the mourners.

Mehsud is like a magnet, attracting extremists from around the world. They include former Kashmiri militants seeking a new challenge now that their organization has been banned as well as retired trainers for the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who were not prepared to follow the alliance with the Americans. Hundreds of young jihadists from the Gulf states, Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Chechnya have also joined Mehsud's group.

This has led to the development of the world's most important training center for international terrorism in Waziristan. Even rival groups have joined forces there.

The credit for this reconciliation of former adversaries goes to Islamic fundamentalist Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban until the fall of 2001 and Afghanistan's quasi head of state at the time. Once the founder of the Taliban, Omar lost an eye in battle. He is believed to have married one of bin Laden's daughters and given safe haven to al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is now making preventive concessions to the Islamists. For instance, he recently signed a law that requires women to satisfy their husbands' sexual needs and to secure their permission to go out in public. The move shocked American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who confronted Karzai on the issue. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that the new law would make it more difficult to justify sending the alliance's troops to Afghanistan. Only after a flood of international criticism did Karzai announce that he would review the law.

Mullah Omar's Taliban is not only regaining strength in Afghanistan, but is also becoming a force to be reckoned with elsewhere. At the beginning of the year, as the New York Times reported, Omar sent a six-member team to Waziristan to warn the Pakistani militant groups about the Americans' new Afghanistan strategy and appeal to them to put aside old rivalries. The goal, they said, must be to join forces to liberate Afghanistan from the American occupiers. In a letter accompanying the envoys, the spiritual leader of the Taliban wrote: "If anybody really wants to wage jihad, he must fight the occupation forces inside Afghanistan."


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